Our hearts and minds rebel at the very thought of what happened a few weeks ago in a rural town in western Connecticut. This is, obviously, not the way the world is supposed to be, and even amid the wave of tragedies we witness almost daily in this age of instant communications, this one ranked among the worst. In a quiet Connecticut elementary school, twenty precious children lost their lives in a rain of gunfire. Six brave women were killed trying to protect them. A mother is killed by her son in her own home. A deranged young man ends his own life in a day of terror.
Twenty-eight lives ended in a hail of violence, and the horrible images we see are only surpassed by the even more horrible ones we imagine. Little children lying lifeless on the floor. Scores of others crouching in fear in cupboards and closets. Parents’ faces twisted in agony, in fear, in grief. A dark cloud of sorrow seems to hang over all. Sadness gives way to anger, then to numbness; then finally, just to sadness once again, and we have all grown much older in a day.
Whatever our politics, whatever our faith, whatever our philosophy, we know deeply: this is not the way life is supposed to be. We have, most of us, lived long enough to understand that tragedy is part of life and that bad and sad things happen in this world. But here, in Newtown, at Sandy Hook, we have truly witnessed the depths of despair, before which our own little aches and pains and petty crises and even the major frustrations and sadness of our own lives pale in comparison.
I cannot imagine what those parents must be going through. Or the trauma of classmates who witnessed such horrors. Or the lasting effects on those who bravely shielded them, and hid them away, and protected them. Or the effects on a community of such a public, horrific tragedy.
How, in the face of such events, does life go on? How do those parts of the soul which events like these kill ever grow back again? How do you live brokenhearted? How do you live at all?
The fact that people do survive such horrors testifies, I suppose, to just how strong the human spirit is. (I don’t know if I could be that strong. Nor do any of us. And may we pray that we are not tested so.) But while it seems almost callous to say it, life does go on. It has to.
When she was asked whether Newtown would ever recover from the Sandy Hook tragedy, Maryann Jacob, a school librarian who took cover in a school storage room with 18 fourth-graders during the rampage, responded: “We have to. We have a lot of children left.”
We have a responsibility to those taken from us to go on. Even more pressingly, perhaps, we have a responsibility to those left behind. We cannot sacrifice our responsibility to care for the future to the sadness and grief we feel today.
We have a lot of children left, all of us do. Building the world they will inherit is our chief calling, as parents and grandparents, as creative beings, as people of faith, and as citizens. Building the world our children will inherit is our chief calling as human beings.
The Sandy Hook tragedy presents stark questions about the kind of world, the kind of society, we are handing down.
Of course, there is something (in most of us, at least) which resists the urge to politicize such a universal tragedy. Of course, there are social and political ramifications to almost everything we do in this world. But it is not appropriate, it seems to me, to use this tragedy to run up points for one’s own position on gun control or funding for social programs or mental health services or any such issues. As our President said, rightfully I think, in the wake of the shootings in a Colorado movie theater this summer, “There are going to be other days for politics. This is a time for prayer and reflection.”
Of course, part of that reflection may include our wondering why everyday, ordinary people like you and me even need access to military-style assault weapons in the first place. Or, in our prayer, we may well ponder why, in America today, it is so much easier to get thrown in jail than to be admitted to a mental health facility. Or why, the rate of deaths by firearms in the United States is three and a half times that for France; five times that for Canada; ten times that of Germany, Ireland, Australia, and India; forty times that of the United Kingdom and Romania, among other places. As one commentator has put it, why is the United States the only nation in the world where mentally unstable people are given access to technology, to weapons, that can make them lords over life and death for large numbers of people?
These are important questions we must ponder as a nation. They are religious and ethical questions, as much as they are political ones. But still, the old activist slogan, “Don’t mourn—organize!” rings more than a little hollow at a time like this. Newtown presents even more important questions than the right way of interpreting the Second Amendment and reconciling the rights of some people to bear arms and the rights of the rest of us to dwell in peace and safety in our schools, communities, churches, and places of employment. For only if we take the time to mourn the dear victims of Sandy Hook—read their names, see their faces again, let the reality of these holy and precious lives taken way too soon penetrate deeply into our beings and our souls, can we give these lives (and these deaths) the honor and meaning they demand.
Charlotte and Daniel and Olivia and Josephine. Dylan and Madeline; Catherine and Chase. Jesse, Ana, James, and Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison.
May these names be at the heart of our life’s litany in the days that are before us.
And Rachel, and Dawn, and Anne Marie, and Lauren and Mary and Victoria. And Nancy, too.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
What really matters, the President said, is “what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose.”
Our hearts are broken, and we ask, “Where was God?” Where is God?
Those are questions people ask at times like these, and they are good questions, and they are hard questions. But sadness and suffering and tragedy and despair are fundamentally part of who we are as human beings and what life is on this earthly coil. Perhaps it is only our generally coddled position as 21st century Americans that insulates us from the reality of how tenuous and fragile life truly is.
“All life is suffering” was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, and from that truth, he set out the path to enlightenment. In the Christian tradition, God did not become man to explain away all suffering, but to teach us of the power of love, divine and human, to transcend suffering and transform it.
In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel tells of his experience in the hell of the Auschwitz death camp. In one of the most horrific passages, he tells of the execution by hanging of a young Polish boy by the Nazis for some petty offense. The other prisoners were forced to watch the boy as he hung from the gallows. Wiesel writes:
“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’”
Where was God in Newtown? In those hallways and classrooms where children suffered, and cried out in anguish, and died. In the heart of Victoria Soto as she shielded her students with her very body in the face of an armed gunman. God was there afterwards, too, rejoicing with parents reunited with their children; weeping with parents when they received the news that their precious ones had been taken.
God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” As one commentator has put it, “In fact, [God] is not on trial at Newtown—we are. It is not his response to Newtown that is in question, but ours.”
A Catholic writer, Max Lucado, wrote this Christmas prayer in the wake of the shootings:
“Jesus, it's a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately… You entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. We ask you, heal us, help us, be born in us.”
As Anthony Podavano has written, “The things that break our hearts are not more significant than the things that mend and heal them.” The only real answer to violence is love. The only real answer to death is life. Sometimes in this world, we grapple with evil, true, and we must battle it even at the cost of our own lives, if needs be. But ultimately, the only way evil can be defeated is if we, each in our own way, each according to our own calling, remove it from our hearts, and live our lives in the light of God’s love.
In the name of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, whatever is worthy of praise—in the name of those dear angels we remember this day (and always), may we arise with deep and profound sorrow in our hearts, but with new purpose, as well—with new urgency and new determination—to bind up the broken, to comfort the afflicted, to spread as far as we may the love and peace of God across the face of this world.